Monday, 23 March 2009

Comment is free (but is it healthy)

I've been spending (or wasting) time recently on the Guardian's Comment is Free site It's an emblematic digimodernist forum. As message boards go it's one of the more interesting and fruitful. Articles of a Guardian nature (favouring issues related to race or gender, tending to criticism of Israel or US foreign policy or Britain and to idealization of France or Scandinavia, etc.) are uploaded on to it every half hour or so during the day, joining those also available in the printed paper. After spending a certain amount of time commenting you get the feeling that you know the regulars - Kizbot, LordSummerisle, MrPikeBishop - as though you were actually acquainted with more than their pseudonym and a selection of their opinions. It easily becomes "addictive", or it encourages repeat behaviour patterns, because once you've added your thoughts and wisdom to a thread you find you're somehow desperate to know what others make of them. So you go back and look, again and again. Losing interest in a discussion, you find there's a new article to append your reaction to, and so it goes on. Eventually you've lost several hours of your day. And what have you achieved? You've told some people whom you'll never know some things they can do nothing with as they'll never know you, and they've done the same back.
Cif is pretty good because often people respond to each other, and as a result there's usually (not always) a governing ethos which forces contributers to use logic and evidence to support their views. On many other message boards people spout and rant away in a little argumentative bubble of their own, indifferent to the rules of rational debate. On a good day Cif is like a spirited argument in the pub with some articulate, informed, interesting and committed friends. It's stimulating, challenging, fascinating. On a bad day it's like a semi-involuntary outpouring of rage and hatred by lonely people in the street with mental health issues. It seems futile and really sad. Although the Guardian is a centre-left paper many contributers are well to the right, and presumably go to Cif because they're spoiling for a political fight. There's a recurring flirtation with anti-democratic stances on many of the threads, and a sense of dissent for dissent's sake on some of them too.
David Mitchell (above) recently complained in The Observer, the Guardian's sister paper, that message boards degenerate into outlets for vile and sociopathic loathing when they are supposed to provide a forum for thought He suggested circumventing this drift by posting a certain banal and vacuous response on threads; hundreds of Cif posters, "hilariously", did exactly that to his article. Are message boards a "good" or a "bad" thing? Interestingly, it's impossible finally to say. All depends on the last or the next contribution: if it's abuse, no; if it's a thought or an angle you'd never previously encountered, posted by someone with interesting things to say whom you'd never otherwise meet, then boards are wonderful. You make of them what you will; they are what we will. And I'm not telling you my pseudonym, no.


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